A World Without “Narcissists”

By Laura K Kerr

Photo of Zeng Fanzhi's "Mask Series No. 9," SFMOMA (1994).

Photo of Zeng Fanzhi’s “Mask Series No. 9,” SFMOMA (1994).

The Committee responsible for revising the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders went back and forth in their deliberations over Narcissistic Personality Disorder, but the diagnosis remained. Never mind their concerns. I doubt omitting narcissism from psychiatry’s Bible would curb the common practice of hurling the label at foes and ex-lovers. Blame it on the State of the Union, but Americans need a term befitting people who are habitually selfish and destructive, and who lack remorse for the emotional devastation they cause. Narcissist has become a well-known warning to would-be victims as well as a lament for survivors of their vituperous attacks.

One obvious problem with the term narcissism is that it applies to all of us. Supposedly, everyone is narcissistic some of the time, and a certain amount of narcissism is healthy. Still, some people are thought to be narcissistic all the time, even when they are charming. But if we are all a bit narcissistic, while some of us are a lot narcissistic, what is really being said? That we all lack empathy sometimes and can be self-absorbed, but like eating too much sugar or drinking too much booze, these behaviors become vices when done to excess?

(People often use the term narcissist to label extreme self-preoccupation and grandiose behavior, but given the problem of cruelty on this small and fragile planet of ours, I’m not as troubled by this, other than it reduces attention to more pressing matters.)

Like any scientific term (even the quasi-scientific), narcissism loses its usefulness if overly applied or misapplied (which often occur together). Furthermore, there is another term for the extreme narcissist: sociopath. And here again, a slippery slope: At what point does the narcissist become the sociopath?

Another problem is the belief that labeling hurtful people somehow provides protection — like a sign that says, “Caution: Mountain Lions” at the foot of a trail. But labels are ineffective at creating the kind of boundaries needed to avoid emotional traps and victimization. More importantly, they fail to change the perpetrator. It is well-known that persons who are pathologically narcissistic rarely seek help to change themselves. But they definitely need to change — or be restrained. There’s simply too many of us on the planet for any of us to behave too narcissistically.

There has always been cruelty. As primatologist Franz de Waal pointed out in his book Our Inner Ape, us humans are a Janus-faced species — both cruel and kind. According to de Waal, both our capacity for goodness and our capacity for evil stem from the same source: our ability to imagine another’s internal experiences. He wrote:

“the same capacity to understand others also makes it possible to hurt them deliberately. Both sympathy and cruelty rely on the ability to imagine how one’s own behavior affects others. …We are capable of such savagery despite, or perhaps precisely because of, our ability to imagine what others feel.”

Typically, when imagining pathological narcissism, the cautious minded only see trouble. I have heard of a Northern aboriginal group who “accidently” push their troublemakers off the icy edges bordering their communities. With limited resources and space, perhaps they see cruelty as the only way to reduce the likelihood of cruelty. There may also be a psychological urge to purge the meanest among us, especially given the high anxiety aroused by having someone lurking about who rages at the slightest threat to their sense of self. (Hence the phrase, “walking on egg shells” often used to describe life with an extreme narcissist.)

Early in US history, our country was once the place to ‘push’ undesirables. Australia was also once a favorite dumping ground. But banishment sits on a dangerous and slippery slope, with the far end occupied by genocide. In the twentieth century, entire populations were brutally murdered because they were imagined threats, irrespective of reality. This happened with the Nazi victimization of the Jews, the Hutu victimization of the Tutsis, the Ottoman victimization of the Armenians, and on and on.

Yes, there are those among us who are a threat to our emotional and physical survival. We deserve to feel safe from their harm. However, the fear of cruelty causes high levels of anxiety that can also lead to savagery. Because of the capacity to imagine the internal worlds of others, it’s not difficult to conjure worst-case scenarios when imagining what’s going on in the head of someone perceived as a threat. The imagination goes wild when fear is present, and fear makes us humans stupid and mean. Pathological narcissists — the types that hang out at the sociopath edge of the spectrum like Adolph Hitler — use the capacity to imagine others peoples’ minds to exploit their fears. And one of the classic ways to imply a population or person is a threat is to point to limited resources, which is an increasingly common situation across the planet. (I wrote about the role scarcity plays in human cruelty here.)

One advantage of narcissism as a diagnosis is the opportunity to treat lack of empathy much like a disease or chronic condition, and possibly heal pathological narcissism, or manage such behavior. By keeping narcissism as a diagnosis, there is also an implicit commitment to understanding what causes people to lack empathy and exploit others for personal gain. Such knowledge should change the world in ways that lessen the likelihood of pathological narcissism, but this hasn’t happened yet.

Rather than changing conditions that lead to narcissism, the mental health field has been overly preoccupied with altering the minds of people — those imagined internal worlds. Although there isn’t certainty about the exact cause of pathological narcissism, there is a pretty good understanding of what increases its likelihood, including:

  • Parents who use their children to boost their own self-image
  • Parents who pamper and dote excessively
  • Parents who are critical but also permissive
  • Neglect
  • Abuse

I doubt therapy can be the cure to extreme narcissism. Psychotherapy is more often the place where we go as victims to heal, not where we go as perpetrators to reform, which makes me think pathological narcissism (including bullying) needs a social-based response until perpetrators are ready to explore their own emotional wounds.

Although I don’t know the solution to pathological narcissism, I am inspired by Simone de Beauvoir’s ethics of ambiguity, which she introduced not long after the Holocaust, and is basically the following humanistic principle:

My rights stop where your rights begin, and your rights stop where my rights begin.

Simple enough. The idea implies all of us deserve boundaries that protect us from being harmed by another as well as our own obligation not to hurt others.

You might be thinking, “Well yeah, of course boundaries are the solution — but it’s also the problem since pathological narcissism involves ignoring the rights and boundaries of others. If we wait for ‘these’ people to respect boundaries, we’ll be waiting forever.” And if you were to say this, I would agree. However, I think it is those who are more often victims of cruelty that need the most help with boundaries — both with asserting their rights as well as maintaining the right kinds of boundaries.

For example, a few years ago I heard the story of a woman in Western Africa who was regularly beaten by her husband. She couldn’t defend herself, and the authorities were of no help. So her women friends banded together, working their schedules so that someone was always at the abused woman’s home and she was never alone with her husband. This intimidated him, and he eventually left.

As this example shows, sometimes we need help asserting boundaries and rights, although doing so may mean relaxing the boundaries we have between our public and private lives. When we unite to defend against injurious behavior in non-injurious ways, we may lose some privacy, but we are also less vulnerable. Perhaps many Americans’ preoccupation with privacy (along with their benign states of narcissism) keep them from seeking support when battered, bullied, or otherwise victimized. Often the boundaries that protect privacy stand in the way of creating safety from cruelty. Perhaps we all would benefit from acknowledging there is no shame in being a victim, but there is shame in hurting another.

An ethics of ambiguity could also be extended to boundaries on our thoughts. Most of us at least some of the time fail to practice healthy boundaries of mind, and worry about what others think, their motives, and even how we might change what they think. Instead of giving attention to ourselves and how we feel when we are with a person, we spend time worrying what that person is thinking and feeling about us. I see this happen often with clients mistreated or battered by their partners. Although imagining what a batterer is thinking is a method for anticipating and possibly avoiding danger, it also contributes to paranoia and staying stuck in the relationship.

When we worry about another person’s thoughts, we are more likely to become anxious and ignore our own feelings, which are often the best indicators about the quality of a relationship. If you repeatedly feel bad about yourself when you are with someone, or are fearful in that person’s company, trust your feelings. Don’t worry about the reasons for bad behavior. In healthy and safe ways, leave the relationship if it can’t be repaired, and get outside support when needed (which is often imperative if being battered), thereby asserting your right to safety and freedom from hurt. This is a much healthier practice than hurling a label of narcissist once the damage is already done. Furthermore, by practicing healthy boundaries in our personal relationships, we begin to expect healthy boundaries and freedom from cruelty in all our interactions, and are better positioned to achieve them without getting lost in our imaginations and escalating fear.